Information Anxiety: Towards Understanding

Published in Scenario 05: Extraction
Winter 2012

“Communication is equivocal. We are limited by a language where words may mean one thing to one person and quite something else to another. There is no ordained right way to communicate. At least in the absolute sense, it is impossible to share our thoughts with someone else, for they will not be understood in exactly the same way.”

Richard Saul Wurman, “Chapter 4: Language,” in Information Anxiety (note 1)

Richard Saul Wurman describes his work as the promotion of understanding. “I am in the understanding business,” he writes. As the founder of TED conferences, his projects and writing examine information, architecture, design, and communication. Coining the term “information architecture” over thirty years ago, Wurman studies the processes behind which we understand, communicate, convey, and use information.

This emphasis towards understanding and the problem of too much information complicating the ability to do good work are key themes underlying  Information Anxiety (1989) and Information Anxiety 2 (2000). The following excerpts look at the problem of too much information, how we create understanding, and the beauty of what may be a lost art form: conversation. How we use information matters and particularly in the work of design: The purpose of technology and good communication is to create possibilities for ideas that, before, you hadn’t imagined or considered.

Information Anxiety: A word in search of a definition (note 2)

The word “information” has always been an ambiguous term, wantonly applied to define a variety of concepts. The Oxford English Dictionary describes the word as having its root in the Latin word informare, meaning the action of forming matter, such as stone, wood, leather, etc. It appears to have entered the English language in its present spelling and usage in the sixteenth century. The most common definition is: “the action of informing; formation or molding of the mind or character, training, instruction, teaching; communication of instructive knowledge.”

This definition remained fairly constant until the years immediately following World War II, when it came into vogue to use “information” as a technological term to define anything that was sent over an electric or mechanical channel. “Information” became part of the vocabulary of the science of messages. And, suddenly, the appellation could be applied to something that didn’t necessarily have to inform. This definition was extrapolated to general usage as something told or communicated, whether or not it made sense to the receiver. Now, the freedom engendered by such an amorphous definition has, as you might expect, encouraged it liberal deployment.  It has become the single most important word of our decade, the sustenance of our lives and our work.

Information anxiety has proliferated with the ambiguity of the word “information.” This mantra of our culture has been overused to the point of senselessness, in much the same way that a word repeated over and over will lose meaning. The word inform has been stripped out of the noun information, and the form or structure has disappeared from the verb to inform. Much of what we assume to be information is actually just data or worse.

Raw data can be, but isn’t necessarily, information, and, unless it can be made to inform, it has no inherent value. It must be imbued with form and applied to become meaningful information. Yet, in our information-hungry era, it is often allowed to masquerade as information.

So the great information age is really an explosion of non-information; it is an explosion of data. To deal with the increasing onslaught of data, it is imperative to distinguish between data and information. Information must be that which leads to understanding. Everyone needs a personal measure against which to define the word. What constitutes information to one person may be data to another. If it doesn’t make sense to you, it doesn’t qualify for the appellation.

In their landmark treatise in 1949, The Mathematical Theory of Communication, authors Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver define information as that which reduces uncertainty.

The differences between data and information have become more critical as the world economy moves towards information-dependent economies. Information drives the education field, the media, consulting and service companies, postal services, lawyers, accountants, writers, certain government employees, as well as those in data communications and storage. Many countries already have a majority of their work forces engaged in occupations that are primarily information processing. The move to an information-based society has been so swift that we have yet to come to terms with the implications.

Understanding lags behind production. “The channel, storage, and retrieval capacities of electronic hardware are rapidly growing, such as in the field of laser optics or microcomputers,” said Orrin Klapp in Overload and Boredom: Essays on the Quality of Life in the Information Society. “… There hasn’t been a corresponding gain in human capacity. Better information processing can speed the flow of data but is of little help in reading the printout, deciding what to do about it, or finding higher meaning. Meaning requires time-consuming thought, and the pace of modern life works against affording us the time to think.”

Information Anxiety 2: Talk is Deep (note 3)

The industrial design critic Ralph Caplan was talking to a woman who was trying to explain something to him. “I know what I want to say, but I just can’t put it into words,” she told him. Puzzled, Caplan asked her, “Can you tell me what form it is in now?

There is still only one method for transmitting thought, for communicating information in a manner that somewhat captures the spirit of the mind: the medium of conversation. Conversation can be a mirror of the mind, a petri dish for ideas. It enables us to communicate our thoughts in a manner that closely models the way they occur in our minds.

Without words, we would be severely handicapped in both shaping our thoughts and communicating them to others. While not the only tool, words elevate communication and lend an unparalleled degree of sophistication to expression.

The implicit and explicit goal of all conversation is understanding. Whether conversations occur between loves, friends, relatives, or business associates, they have as their express goal to get ones’ point across, to make a connection between one’s thoughts and another person—that is, the outside world; conversations are an understanding machine, an imminently satisfying forum for the exchange of information.

A conversation forms a two-way communication link. There is a measure of symmetry between the parties as messages pass to and fro. There is a continual stimulus-response, cyclical action; remarks evoke other remarks, and the behavior of the two individuals becomes concerted, cooperative, and directed toward some goal.

Time and time again, studies have shown that the best communication occurs face to face. We just can’t deny that.  People still fly halfway across the world to meet clients for the first time. In many organizations, 40 to 60 percent of the workday is spent in meetings. Managers need to be talking to their employees, real-time, one-on-one, telling them what is going on in their organization.

The lost art of conversation (note 4)

Alas, too often the human voice is lost, and our communication skills come up short. As Henry Miller once said, “We do not talk—we bludgeon each other with facts and theories gleaned from cursory readings of newspapers, magazines, and digests.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the business community. Studies have shown that poor communication is one of the main problems facing businesses today. Executives consistently rate communications among themselves as their main area of difficulty, according to Robert Lefton, president of Psychological Associates Inc. in St. Louis. High on the list of employee’s complaints are lack of communication with management and difficulties getting along with co-workers. If companies can’t communicate among themselves, how can they be talking to clients and customers?

As Malcolm Gladwell writes in The Tipping Point, we use influence to convince our clients and prospects to believe in us. We use the art of persuasion and consistent messaging to build trust with employees and our market.

When we are trying to convey an idea or attitude or product tip, we’re trying to change our audience in some small yet critical respect: We’re trying to infect them, sweep them up in our epidemic, convert them from hostility to acceptance. That can be done through the influence of special kinds of people—people of extraordinary personal connection.

Conversation is a viable, appropriate model for the communications industry, but it is largely untapped. It is a simple-minded principle imbued with extraordinary complexities, nuances, and ephemeral magic.

This is a book about clarification. And the most basic conversation that we have takes into it an enormous complexity, comments about weather, dress, nuances of the visual (someone nodding, blinking eyes, promptings, or lip movement) that show they want clarification or want to interrupt. It’s the best of what we do, the most complex thing we do. It has in it the possibility of great creative activity.

There is nothing else we do better when we do conversation well. There is no other communication device that provides such subtle and instantaneous feedback, nor permits such a range of evaluation and correctibility.

Words are strung together seemingly without hesitation in phenomenally complex sequences and thoughts.  They, in turn, work with each other to form new meaning. By its existence this process allows for the development of new ideas. Ideas are created in conversation. E.M. Forster used to say that to “speak before you think is creation’s motto.” Although spoken language is learned, it becomes natural and seemingly it becomes instinctive. It is our pipeline to understanding. We have more skills to put thoughts together by language than we do visually.


With the publication of his first book in 1962 at the age of twenty-six, Richard Saul Wurman began the singular passion of his life: making information understandable. He chaired the International Design in Aspen in 1972, the first Federal Design Assembly in 1973, followed by the National AIA Convention in 1976, before creating and chairing TED (Technology/Entertainment/Design) conferences from 1984-2002. A fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Richard received both master’s and bachelor’s degrees of architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, and subsequently established a deep personal and professional relationship with the architect Louis I. Kahn. He has written eighty-one books.

For a complete biography and current works, please visit http://wurman.com/rsw/.

Excerpts reprinted with permission from Richard Saul Wurman.


1: Richard Saul Wurman, “Chapter 4: Language,” in Information Anxiety (New York: Doubleday, 1989) 102.
2: Ibid. 37.
3: Richard Saul Wurman, “Chapter 6,” in Information Anxiety 2 (Indianapolis: Que, 2000) 111.
4: Ibid. 113.

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